In The Pickup, Nadine Gordimer again explores the theme of interracial, intercultural relationships such as those at the center of The Lying Days (1953) and A Sport of Nature (1987). Here, however, the context is not apartheid. Rather it is the plight of the immigrant, especially the illegal immigrant, that draws her attention. What if, Gordimer asks, a well-to-do young woman, a white South African with Irish and Scots ancestry living on her own in a kind of bohemian independence, with a wealthy and well-connected father, were to encounter a young, attractive Arab man working (illegally) in a menial occupation? What if they are attracted to each other and become sexually involved? What if they fall in love? What if his illegal status is discovered and he is ordered (again) to leave the country? In this novel, the human heart is in conflict not only with itself but with the various forces of disparate cultural traditions, including religion, the position of women, the drive to escape the oppression of poverty, community, and fate, as well the burning desire to be independent. Tied to these social issues are the themes of identity and selfhood. Identity is set in opposition to nonentity, the search by Julie Summers for her identity is set in opposition to that of the man known as “Abdu” early in the novel. Is one’s identity a matter of one’s birth, social status, clothing and appearance, race and religion? Can it ever be a matter of choice?
The novel’s principal South African settings are the EL-AY Café in Johannesburg and the neighborhoods of its young upwardly mobile habitués, the suburbs where Julie had grown up amongst other wealthy white professionals, the desert village home of Ibrahim ibn Musa, and the working-class streets and shops, in one of which “Abdu” has found work repairing automobiles. In a symbolic scene, Julie first meets Ibrahim as he crawls out from beneath an automobile. The other significant setting is the desert country, Ibrahim’s homeland, to which Julie and Ibrahim go after their marriage upon his deportation from South Africa. At first a place utterly foreign to Julie, and fundamentally detested by Ibrahim even though it is his home, the desert and its people become for Julie both a place of beauty and possibility and a people of dignity and identity. It remains for Ibrahim, however, a prison from which he must escape.
Because the novel’s technical narrative point of view focuses more on Julie than any other character, including Ibrahim, and is essentially presented through her eyes with commentary from a sympathetic if somewhat aloof narrator, the novel is about Julie’s growth and development. In the beginning she is a young upwardly mobile professional, a public relations officer in a nameless corporation, who depends upon the responses of her friends for much of her identity. These friends are guided by situational ethics and pride themselves on being social liberals, open to encounters, especially sexual encounters, with the Other and generally scornful of traditional ethics, perhaps because of the corruption and bankruptcy of traditional ethics revealed by the historical realities of apartheid. Julie and her friends are little concerned and perhaps ignorant of economics, being largely the children of the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. Their lives are characterized by finding the new hot spots for dancing, drinking, and dining and express an easy and facile liberalism, easy because the struggles to overthrow apartheid are years behind them, and facile because most of them are the children of privilege whose rebellion seems (as presented through Gordimer’s narrative stance) more than a touch hypocritical.
As her relationship with Ibrahim grows, however, Julie’s character grows and develops in a satisfying manner. After their forced return to his homeland, an unnamed Arabic country “liberated” to a degree from European colonial domination, a land of desert sands, winds, heat, and traditions startlingly foreign to Julie, she finds herself welcomed first by Ibrahim’s little sister and then by other members of his family. She develops a respectful, accepting, and curious attitude toward the realities of the culture and the climate. She finds ways to be of genuine use to her new family and community by teaching English to the children, the women of the family, and the larger community. She develops a firm and mutual friendship with Maryam, Ibrahim’s sister, and slowly earns the respect of his mother. She also develops a love for the desert and...